When churches moved to online and at-home worship in response to Covid-19, I noticed two opportunities arising from the disruption: Parents could take a more active role in their children’s Sunday worship, and women preachers could become more visible because of streaming services. This was an opportunity to question prevailing ideas about men and women, mothers and fathers, and our roles as leaders in the church and home. Sometimes unwanted disruption can bring with it the opportunity to revisit old narratives, interrupt harmful patterns, and move forward with a better understanding of the Church’s mission.
Sometimes unwanted disruption can bring with it the opportunity to revisit old narratives, interrupt harmful patterns, and move forward with a better understanding of the Church’s mission. Click To Tweet
One narrative worth disrupting is the one that elevates male leadership in the church and home while diminishing the calls and contributions of women. This gender hierarchy narrative is rooted in flawed biblical exegesis and sometimes even defended using faulty data. As a theology professor with a sociology background, any reference to church-related statistics catches my eye—and sometimes my ire.
There’s one statistic in particular that I’ve seen used and abused enough that it’s time to disrupt its narrative and the patterns it supports so the church can move forward in its mission more faithfully. Here’s the statement as I’ve seen it:
When dad comes to Christ first, 93% of families will follow.
When mom comes to Christ first, 17% of families will follow.
When kids come to Christ first, 3.5% of families will follow.
This seemingly straightforward statistical statement has been repeated so frequently that many church leaders and lay people accept it without question. Visualizations of this statement are widely shared on social media. Preachers quote this data to exhort dads to spiritual leadership and to justify their churches’ focus on outreach to fathers.
In 2001, the Southern Baptist Convention launched its “There Came a Man” ministry based on this statistic.  J.D. Greear referred to “a recent study” when quoting this statistic in a talk at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s national conference in 2017. One of the largest megachurches in the United States recently launched a men’s outreach program, complete with professionally produced video resources, citing this data point as the motivation.
The statistic is cited as justification for male spiritual headship and as explanation for declining adherence to Christianity correlating with an increase in single mother households. It’s so often repeated that it simply must be true. Right?
All that’s missing from this consequential data point is a source citation. No one seems to know where this data comes from, and yet entire ministries and outreach programs are built on its foundation. At the risk, or in the hope, of interrupting ministry-as-usual, I have to ask: What if it isn’t true?
A web search for the data source yielded dozens of hits that included versions of this claim, dating from the dawn of websites to 2022, nearly all of them without any source citation. Where could the data have come from? A study that could yield this statistic would be extremely expensive and time-consuming. It would require a massive survey sample to identify a large number of households in which the father, mother, or children became Christians “first,” and those households would have to be sufficiently representative that the results could be extrapolated to the entire US population.
Alternatively, a longitudinal study would have to follow a similarly massive sample to track conversions over time. Only the most well-funded institutions could invest in such a study, and none of them have done so. It’s theoretically possible to learn what percentage of families follow the father, the mother, or the children to Christ, but has anyone actually done this study? As far as I can discover, the answer is no.
The 93% claim is a myth. Here’s how I came to that conclusion and why it matters.
I was able to locate two possible sources for the 93% statistic by finding a few articles that included a source citation. A few websites attribute the data to the original Promise Keepers movement of the late 1990’s, with at least one claiming the source is a study by Promise Keepers and Baptist Press. However, I can find no evidence of such a study. Moreover, Promise Keepers’ online resources don’t reference the statistic, which seems odd if the data resulted from a study the organization conducted.
A few websites mention or footnote Promise Keepers at Work, a group study resource published in 1996 (and actually named The Promise Keeper at Work). This book includes this reflection question in a sidebar: “Consider this: when a child is the first to attend church, 3 1/2 % of the families follow. When a wife/mom is the first to attend church, 17% of the families follow. When a dad/husband is the first to attend church, 93% of the families follow.” The study guide does not provide a source for the data, nor does it claim to have conducted a study. There is no other reference to this information, its source, or the means by which it was obtained in the study guide. I was able to contact one of the book’s authors, and he does not recall the source of the information. The authors of the book were on staff at Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), which also does not claim to have conducted the study, and does not cite the statistic in their current resources. It does not bode well for accuracy that the most frequently cited source of the statistic does not in fact name a source for the statistic.
The other possible source is, “The Demographic Characteristics of National Minorities in Certain European States,” a study conducted in Switzerland in 1994. This citation appears on at least one Catholic website, and I was also directed to this study in the comments on a social media post that shared the 93% claim. A reference librarian tracked down the study for me, and it includes a brief section addressing the continuity or discontinuity of church attendance across generations.
There are several problems with claiming this study as a source for the statistic, the most serious being that the findings presented in the study do not mathematically add up to the 93% or 17% data points. Also, the study did not examine “coming to Christ,” or being “first to attend church.” It examined regular church attendance. Moreover, it did not study whether families started attending after the father did, but rather whether adult children maintain the religious practices of their fathers or mothers. While the study did find a stronger correlation between fathers’ church attendance than mothers’, the study cannot be the source of the 93%.
I also reached out to several experts in children and family ministry, and they either dismissed the statistic out of hand as obviously false or had never heard of it. My conclusion is that the statistic is a myth, circulated to the point that its origin is lost, if there ever was one. It’s time to discard this faulty data point and disrupt the narratives it has been used to support.
Is it likely that a father’s church attendance or conversion to Christianity has more impact on children than a mother’s? It’s possible, but the data presents a more complex picture. One study from the mid-1990s found that 82% of adolescents identified their mother’s influence as a positive factor in their spiritual development, while only 69% identified the father as a positive factor. A 2016 Pew Research Center study of mixed-religion households found that, among children raised in interfaith families “almost half of those adults now identify with their mother’s religion, while 28% identify with their father’s and the rest with neither.”
Barna’s 2019 study on Christian households concluded that “practicing Christians in their teen years consistently identify mothers as the ones who provide spiritual guidance and instruction and instill the values and disciplines of their faith in the household.” Barna also found that among Christian adults in the United States who did not inherit their faith from birth, 68% identified their mother’s faith as most influential, compared to 46% who identified their father’s faith as most influential.
That’s not to say fathers have little influence. Indeed, Vern Bengston’s research on faith and families showed that “fathers who have a close relationship with their children are more likely than distant dads to see their kids carry on the family’s religious practices,” with a father’s warmth being more influential than a mother’s in handing down faith. Similarly, Robert Wuthnow noted that when fathers are absent or emotionally distant, “a wrathful, distant view of God emerged, sometimes closely resembling that of the absent father.” And, the Swiss study noted above did demonstrate a stronger relationship between a father’s church attendance and the church attendance of adult children compared to the influence of the mother’s church attendance.
Research from reliable sources disproves the 93% claim and calls into the question the gendered ministry roles that claim is used to justify.
A Better Way?
The statistics aren’t the only thing that need to be corrected. A much more insidious issue that we need to interrupt and reframe is pitting fathers’ influence against mothers’ influence. Men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers should not be framed as competitors in ministry or the home. The 93% myth is used to accuse men of failing in their spiritual duties and to accuse women of usurping their husband’s spiritual authority. This places fathers and mothers in a competitive hierarchy instead of a united partnership.
Men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers should not be framed as competitors in ministry or the home. ... This places fathers and mothers in a competitive hierarchy instead of a united partnership. Click To Tweet
The 93% myth is used to justify pouring resources into men’s ministries, while limiting women to support roles. This perpetuates gendered stereotypes and prevents people from pursuing God’s callings in their lives. While the available data from reputable sources is certainly interesting and can have implications for ministry, when we highlight one parent’s influence over the other’s, it does not serve the Kingdom of God well. Would the Body of Christ not be better served by having all adults well-equipped to disciple their children faithfully and to invest in the lives of children in their churches in ways that demonstrate the Spirit’s love instead of a spirit of competitive disciple-making?
Yes, We Can Do Better
Church, we can do better than wielding misunderstood or made-up statistics as attacks and accusations.
We can do better than parroting myths when they serve our ministry agendas.
We can do better than reinforcing Christians’ reputation for indifference toward accurate information.
We can do better than accusing men of spiritual absenteeism while admonishing women to refrain from spiritual leadership.
Let’s disrupt these narratives altogether.
Let’s celebrate when parents have a desire to know Christ and to disciple their children and equip women and men to invest in children’s spiritual development.
And while we’re at it, let’s cite our sources.
 Polly House, “Want Your Church to Grow? Then Bring in the Men,” Baptist Press, 4/3/2003. https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/want-your-church-to-grow-then-bring-in-the-men/ Accessed 10/26/2022.
 J.D. Greear, “Ready to Launch: How Mission Shapes Children,” ERLC National Conference, 2017. https://vimeo.com/231922943 Accessed 10/26/2022.
 Information shared with the author by a staff member at the church who wishes to remain anonymous.
 Pew Forum, Public Religion Research Institute, Barna Foundation, and the Baylor Institute for the Study of Religion are examples of such institutions. No source on the Association of Religion Data Archives includes a study with these conclusions.
 The actual title of the resource is The Promise Keeper at Work by Bob Horner, Ron Ralston, and Dave Sunde, Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1996.
 The Promise Keeper at Work, pg. 111.
 Mark A. Lamport, “Adolescent Spirituality: Age of Conversion and Factors of Development,” Christian Education Journal 10 no. 3 (Spring 1990): 25.
 Ruth Graham, “Moms Have Way More Influence Over Their Children’s Religious Lives Than Dads,” Slate, Oct 26, 2016.
 Barna Group, “The Powerful Influence of Moms in Christian Households,” 5/7/2019. https://www.barna.com/research/moms-christians-households/ Accessed 10/26/2022.
 Barna Group, “How Faith Heritage Relates to Faith Practice,” 7/9/2019. https://www.barna.com/research/faith-heritage-faith-practice/Accessed 10/26/2022.
 Kelsey Dallas, “A Father’s Faith: How Modern Dads Impact Their Children’s Religious Views,” Deseret News 6/16/2016. https://www.deseret.com/2016/6/16/20590370/a-father-s-faith-how-modern-dads-impact-their-children-s-religious-views Accessed 10/26/2022.
 Qtd. In Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk, Handing Down the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 5 n. 9.
 See Christian Smith, “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” Christianity Today, 2007.